Simanaitis Says

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FOLLOWING THE TRAIL of a newly translated book leads me to learn things about Barbary pirates, Iceland, a Mozart opera, a possibly fallen woman and my surname.


Today’s tale is prompted by the London Review of Books, June 16, 2016, and its ad for The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson. Newly translated into English, this book is a chronicle of the reverend’s ordeal and subsequent adventures after being kidnapped from his Icelandic village by Barbary corsairs, sold into slavery in North Africa and later released to arrange ransom for those in a similar plight.


The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The story of the Barbary corsair raid on Iceland in 1627, by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols, The Catholic University of America Press, 2016.

Ólafur Egilsson, 1564 – 1639, was a Lutheran minister living on the Icelandic archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. On another note entirely, Heimaey, its largest island, made news in 1973 with the eruption of its Eldfell volcano. Lava destroyed one-fifth of the town until its flow was halted by application of 1.8 billion gallons of icy sea water.

On July 16, 1627, three ships of Barbary pirates invaded Vestmannaeyjar. The pirates killed 34 people and kidnapped 234 others, including the reverend, his wife and two sons. The captives were taken to Algiers, North Africa, and sold into slavery. Later, Egilsson was sent to Copenhagen to plead for ransom funds from the King of Denmark. The reverend returned to Vestmannaeyjar in 1628, though his wife remained a captive until 1637 and his two sons never returned.


Barbary pirates of the sort raiding Iceland in 1627. Image from

In Icelandic history, this and other Barbary raids are known as the Tyrkjaránið, the Turkish Abductions. Despite the name, no Ottoman Turks were directly involved. Most of the pirates were North African Arabs and Berbers. Their leader was Murat Reis the Younger, a Dutch pirate who had converted to Islam (and whose lineage calls out for an item one day).

The Turkish Abductions involved several raids on Iceland, in which perhaps 400 people were kidnapped to be sold into slavery. The pirates, an evidently scurrilous lot, were not always very adept. One raid yielded some salted fish, a few hides and only 15 captives. Another was thwarted by cannon fire from island fortifications. Strong winds and bad weather precluded another.

Nevertheless, some 400 Icelanders were sold into slavery along North Africa’s Barbary Coast, more than 2200 miles from home. Treatment of these captives varied greatly. One wrote home, “There is a great difference here between masters. Some captive slaves get good, gentle, or in-between masters, but some unfortunately find themselves with savage, cruel, hardhearted tyrants….”

Barbary pirates were active from the 16th century into the 1800s. In April 1805, U.S. Marines and Arab mercenaries contested Barbary pirate states in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripolitania. Their victory in the Battle of Derne is celebrated “to the Shores of Tripoli.”


Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon leads the Marines at Derna, Libya, 1805. Painting by Col. Charles Waterhouse, U.S.M.C.

Decades before, Europeans enjoyed a fascination with Turkish influences of the Ottoman Empire. Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782, is an example. This comic opera has its hero Belmonte, assisted by his servant Pedrillo, attempting to rescue his beloved Konstanze and her maid Blonde from the harem of Pasha Selim.


Mozart, center, at a performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Berlin, 1789.

The opera is a good romp, ending happily with a benevolent Pasha releasing the foursome, much to the dismay of Osmin, the Pasha’s henchman, who had the hots for Konstanze.

By contrast, the true tale of Guðríður Símonardóttir, 1598 – 1682, is rather more complex. She was one of those kidnapped in 1627 and sold into slavery in Algiers. After being a concubine for more than a decade, she was one of a few captives ransomed by the Danish king.


A statue of Guðríður Símonardóttir, on Heimaey Island, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Image from

As part of her rehabilitation in Denmark, Símonardóttir was tutored by Hallgrímur Pétursson, an Icelandic theology student. They fell in love, she became pregnant, and when they returned to Iceland, they found that her husband there had died. Guðríður and Hallgrímur married; he was appointed a pastor, later known for his poetry and Passíusálmar, Passion Hymns.

To some, Guðríður was thought of as a fallen woman. The fact that she was 16 years older than Hallgrímur didn’t help matters.

Is this a plot for a TV drama or what?

Last, I recognize that Símonardóttir is an Icelandic patronymic for “daughter of Simon.” Do you suppose Guðríður and I are related, sort of? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Mark
    June 24, 2016

    Read the Wikipedia article about the 1973 eruption – fascinating!

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